Walking and Talking Diversity

Date: November 16, 2015
To: Campus Community
From: Paul J. Zingg, President
Subject: Walking and Talking Diversity

As many of us have been observing, last week was a troubling one for the University of Missouri. The pent-up frustration of African-American and other students of color and their allies, who have long complained of the inadequacy of the response of the University’s leaders in dealing with racial inequality and social injustice on the overwhelmingly white (80% of the student body, 72% of the faculty) Columbia campus, finally reached the tipping point. A leader of the student body started a hunger strike in protest of the hostile climate and his and other demonstrations of concern inspired the African-American members of the football team to refuse to play for the team unless the system president resigned. The entire team, including the coaching staff, then joined their black teammates in the demand.

The president of the University of Missouri System subsequently announced his resignation, followed immediately by the resignation of the chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia campus, and the dismissal of the director of Greek life and leadership. More than likely, others will be losing their jobs there, too.

And then the backlash began, including rumors of KKK members patrolling the campus and others publishing arson and personal injury threats on social media against the African-American students and the University.

Although even for those like myself who have been following racial strife on the Missouri campus for quite some time, in fact, a dismal track record of human feces-painted swastikas and cotton balls dumped on the lawn of the Black Culture Center, it is still impossible to comment on the specifics of a situation with which we do not have intimate knowledge.

But a few things are very clear. First, we are witnessing at this university a powerful and volatile intermingling of several elements: race and racism, power and authority, frustration and anger, the very different collegiate experience for students of color and those who are not, sport and institutional identity…and money. And it is not just the cynics who wonder that the factor ultimately toppling the University’s leaders was the threat of losing millions of dollars in fines from the Southeast Athletic Conference and revenues from football games if the Tigers forfeited any of their games because they could not field teams to compete.

Second, we will see a familiar response. And it is already occurring. Folks will express “outrage.” They will exclaim that these “incidents” are not the “true Mizzou.” A “diversity” course will be established for incoming students. And a blue ribbon task force will be commissioned to study what is happening and to chart a way forward to a more tolerant, inclusive and responsive future for the campus.

And, third, we and other campuses will breathe a sigh of relief that something like Missouri’s tempest is not happening at our institutions.

Well, guess what, it is.

The head of a unit on our campus tells his colleagues as they are gathered to conduct a search for a new member that he is “sick and tired of all this diversity stuff.”

A prominent member of our campus tells one of the campus’ diversity leaders that he sees nothing wrong with white students putting on fake moustaches and wearing sombreros in order “to party like a Mexican.” And when some Hispanic students visit with him to tell him why this is hurtful and demeaning, he addresses them in a manner that they find condescending and dismissive.

The sole African-American student in a class is asked by her instructor to share with everyone what African-Americans at-large think about a particular issue.
Students of color are frequently subjected to racial epithets and even having objects thrown at them from passing cars as they walk through downtown or neighborhood streets. And they are often shadowed in stores by employees who are inclined or directed to be suspicious of their presence.

Faculty who are known allies of diversity on the campus have had homophobic and racist slurs scrawled on their office doors and bulletin boards.

These are not incidents from the University of Missouri. Or Ferguson, Missouri. Or the University of Mississippi or the University of Oklahoma. Or North Charleston, South Carolina, or Baltimore, Maryland. These are recent incidents at Chico State University and in the city of Chico.

So what do we do? We wring our hands. We shout “Not on our campus!” or “Not in our city!” We console the students who have been abused and humiliated. We put together a task force and we write a report. And, mostly, we delegate to someone else the responsibility to deal with these matters. And the familiar champions stand up again: the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, the Chicano Latino Council, the Black Faculty and Staff Association, the LGBTQ leadership, the Multicultural and Gender Studies Program, the Safe Zone Ally Program, the Faculty Diversity Officer or the University Diversity Council. And, yes, those faculty and staff for whom social justice and multicultural respect, awareness and understanding are not just values to espouse, but conditions to achieve.

But, mostly, our campus as a whole has not yet embraced diversity as a core value, as a core commitment, for which all of us are accountable and responsible. We have not embraced diversity in the same way that we proclaim the “primacy of learning” and the development of “high quality learning environments both inside and outside the classroom” as an institutional matter that commands the attention and support of all members of our University community. And, I firmly believe, we never will unless we change the equation, unless we enlarge the framework that places diversity issues and concerns in the center of our identity, character, aspirations and notions of institutional excellence. Indeed, at the very center of what it means to be a “high quality learning environment.”

This is what a proposal that is being developed by the University Diversity Council for campus consideration is all about. It is to expand our University Strategic Plan to add a priority on diversity. It is to state what is unmistakable and inescapable: Diversity matters.

It is key to recruiting, enrolling, supporting and graduating a richly diverse and high-quality student population. It is key to engaging our students in the richness and diversity of American and world cultures and preparing them for a lifetime of expanded intellectual, social, cultural and attitudinal horizons. It is key to attracting, retaining and supporting highly qualified and motivated faculty and staff who recognize the relationship between high quality and high morale through the diversity of our living and learning community. It is to acknowledge the great social mission of education in a free society, that is, to appreciate the interconnectedness of the world around us and to accept our responsibility to be a vehicle of American democracy and an agent of the American dream. It is to expand our view of the world and capacity to improve it. It is to see diversity as an imperative that great universities understand and embrace. It is the chance to be such a place.

For expanding our Strategic Plan through an explicit priority on diversity is an opportunity not just to reject those behaviors that inflame the University of Missouri, but to affirm those that elevate us. A chance to be, as Benjamin Disraeli envisioned a university, “a place of light, liberty and learning.” It is a call to action. It is to walk the talk.